96. The “Catholic” Month of Pope Francis

November 30th, 2014

“Marriage is between a man and a woman”. “Unborn life is as precious and unique as any life”. “Euthanasia is an unwarranted abuse of human freedom”. “Adoptive children have the right to have a father and a mother”. These are standard Roman Catholic positions on various hotly debated moral issues of our generation. So what’s the fuss about it? They were spoken and argued for by Pope Francis in two different speeches over the last few weeks.[1] After months of confusing messages sent by him about homosexuality (“Who am I to judge?”), the good in every “loving relationship” be it married or not, the need for the Church to stay away from the heat of present-day ethical debates, his uneasiness towards anything “non-negotiable”, Pope Francis has finally said things “Catholic”. While he has always aligned himself to traditional Roman Catholic moral theology (he is the Pope, after all!), he has never gone public on these issues in such a clear-cut way and in such a short period of time.

The Aftermath of the Synod

This “Catholic” month by the Pope comes after the Synod on the family where the Catholic Church experienced a turbulent time of controversy among high-rank cardinals and bishops. Some progressive voices pushed for an update of the Church’s moral stance on human sexuality and human relationships. Strongly supported by secular public opinion, all applauding this “revolutionary” Pope, sectors of the Church thought that the gap between the Church and the Western masses could be bridged by the Church adopting a more relaxed, less confrontational approach to these issues. The 2014 Synod witnessed a clash between these voices and more traditional ones, resulting in a temporary stand-still waiting for next year’s Synod, which will be re-convened on the same topic.

Where does Pope Francis stand in all this? In the months preceding the Synod, he repeatedly advocated for a “outward looking” Church, i.e. a Church less concerned with dogmas and moral principles and more interested in getting closer to people, irrespective of their individual choices and deliberately abstaining from passing moral judgments on their moral lives. This consistent stream of messages seemed to create a sort of momentum and to form the background for significant changes in the Church that the Synod was meant to introduce. Things went differently, however. In the meantime, significant criticism by important circles of the Catholic Church became outspoken and hit the Pope himself for his wavering and blurred words. This “Catholic” month by Francis can be thought of as a reassurance that he stands for the traditional moral teaching of the Church and has in no way changed his mind. After months of pushing a seemingly progressive agenda, the Catholic pendulum is swinging the opposite way in order to regain stability until the next move.

Where Does He Stand?

A standing question remains though. Where does the Pope really stand on these issues? How do we account for this apparent U-turn? Who is able to grapple with what he has in mind? And, more generally, do we really know where he stands on a number of key doctrinal and pastoral points? So far, he has been keen to build bridges with all kinds of people, movements, and networks. A growing number of people around the globe call the Pope “a friend”. Many evangelical leaders are in their midst. They have the impression that the Pope is very approachable and a transparent person, easy to become familiar with and quick to tune in. He seems to speak their language and to understand their hearts. He appears to be close to everyone. The evidence, however, is more complex. He is certainly capable of getting close to all, calling anyone “brother” and “sister”, but how many people know what lies in his heart? He is certainly able to combine evangelical language, Marian devotions, and “politically correct” concerns, while retaining a fully orbed Roman Catholic outlook. Do we really know Pope Francis? How much of this complexity is the result of him being a Jesuit? How much do we know about the depth of his theology and the all-embracing nature of his agenda?

The Bible wants our communication not to be trapped in a “yes” and “no” type of language at the same time (2 Corinthians 1:18-20) but to speak plainly about what we have in our hearts. Pope Francis’ language tends to say “Yes, yes” and “No, no” with the same breadth. The Word of God also urges us “to speak truthfully” (Ephesians 4:25) and to avoid “twisted words” (Proverbs 4:24). No one can throw a stone here because in this matter we are all sinners. Yet what the Pope has been saying so far did send contradictory messages. This “Catholic” month has shown an important side of Pope Francis, but the full picture is still a work in progress. The impression is that so far we have been collecting only superficial sketches of the Pope and that the real work is still to be done.

77. Where is the Catholic Marriage Going?

March 21st, 2014

The family is at the center of Vatican concerns and activities. A Synod of Bishops is due to meet this coming October and then again in 2015. These important gatherings will address the challenges that the Catholic Church is facing concerning the difficult task of maintaining its traditional teaching in relationship with today’s realities, e.g.  many broken families, many divorces, many “new forms” of family even amongst practicing Catholics, not to mention what happens in secular society. Of course, the issue is huge and multifaceted.

One has to bear in mind that the present-day Catholic concern focuses primarily on the sacramental dimension of the problem. In other words, what does the Church do with the many Catholics who are divorced and are therefore excluded from the Eucharist? Should the Church soften the ban? Should it make provision for more “pastoral” approaches that could allow  their admission under certain circumstances? Ultimately, should the Church change its rigid sacramental categories and come to terms more with the “human”, frail, and transient aspects of marriage?

Kasper’s Way Forward

In preparation for the Synod Cardinal Walter Kasper was asked to introduce the discussion. His lecture (20th February) has stirred the internal debate and is polarizing opinions between reformists and traditionalists. The latest book by Kasper has a programmatic title: Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life (Paulist Press, 2014) and was publicly praised by Pope Francis as the best book he had personally read for some time. It is no chance that Francis has been insisting on “mercy” as the attitude that needs to characterize the Church in all its dealings with people.

Kasper’s lecture is a theological feast that blends Biblical exegesis, patristic writings, canon law and magisterial teaching throughout history. After revisiting all this against the background of the present-day crisis, Kasper envisages some possible “open doors” for those who have had failed marriages and whose conditions of life prevent them from any possible reconciliation. He makes references to the practice of the early church that used to re-admit people who divorced in some specific cases and that is still kept in the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

How can a well established Roman Catholic teaching change? Kasper is aware of the newness of his proposal and suggests that the current situation is analogous to that of the Second Vatican Council on issues of ecumenism and religious freedom. The Church had been against both issues for centuries, but “the Council opened doors” by deciding that a “development” should take place and therefore recognized religious freedom and embraced ecumenism. What should prevent the same from happening with the admission of divorced couples to the Eucharist?

The “Sacramental” Bottom-Line

Non-Catholics may fail to understand the depth and the intensity of the problem. It is not so much about the indissolubility of marriage per se and the realization that divorce is part of the fallen world. It has to do with the sacramental theology that lies at the heart of the Roman Catholic religion. According to Catholic doctrine, marriage is a sacrament, i.e. an “efficacious sign of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1131). The essence of marriage is not a human covenant before God, but a divinely appointed channel of grace that is administered by the Church. “Normalizing” the failure means downplaying the sacrament and therefore shaking the sacramental institution that dispenses it. The fact that the discussion is also about the admission to the Eucharist, i.e. another sacrament, nay the chief sacrament, further amplifies the issue.

Any talk about marriage, divorce, re-marriage and the Eucharist is a talk about the sacramental nature of the Church. Kasper quoted the “development” that took place during Vatican II concerning ecumenism and religious freedom. This is true but neither of those issues impinged on the sacramental structure of the Church. They were sacramentally-free developments, so to speak. Re-admitting divorced people to the Eucharist surely has a “pastoral” dimension to it, but it is essentially a dogmatic issue in that it revolves around the identity of the sacrament, i.e. a divinely appointed efficacious sign of grace entrusted to the Church.

The Roman Church is built around the notion of the sacrament. It is a thoroughgoing sacramental institution. Cardinal Kasper (along with Pope Francis?) wants to emphasize the need for “mercy”, but is he counting the dogmatic weight of such a move? A more “human” and “merciful” sacrament will mean a more humble and modest Church, certainly not the Catholic Church that stemmed out of the Councils of Trent, Vatican I and Vatican II.